Monthly archives of “January 2007

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The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, David Batty (2005)

Beginning with Ayatollah Khomeini’s development of a culture of martyrdom during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), which likely inspired the 1983 US embassy bombing in Beirut, Robert Baer, former CIA, traces the history of the suicide bomber as a weapon in the struggles of radical Islam. The analysis is sometimes simplistic, but this movie is very much worth watching because of Baer’s incredible access. He gets interviews with Hizbollah officials, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, Hamas provocateurs, and on and on. The movie reminds me of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, in that it switches point of view to the “other” side; I’ve heard a million reports about suicide bombings, it feels like, but I’ve rarely seen a reporter look back at the Israeli border from Hizbollah-occupied southern Lebanon.

In the last 11 years, more than 200 Lebanese have blown themselves up in suicide bombing attacks.

Note that Iranian and Hizbollah Lebanese suicide bombers were Shiites, a minority sect whose tradition is rooted in a tradition of martyrdom. It was Palestinian Hamas suicide bombers — Sunnis — who really brought suicide bombing into the mainstream of militant Islam. In Iraq today, in bitter irony, its Sunni insurgents who are the suicide bombers, and their targets are the Shiite government.

In Hebron, there are 130,000 Palestinians, 7,000 Jewish settlers, and 1,000 Israeli soldiers to protect them. Hereis where Baruch Goldstein killed 29 worshippers at Ibrahimi Mosque.

Yahya Ayyash
is profiled as the mastermind of Hamas’s suicide bombing campaigns. He was perhaps the man who transformed suicide bombing from a weapon of war (as in Iran and Lebanon) to a weapon of terror. Astonishing interview with the last man to see him alive. He was assassinated by Israeli secret service, which put an explosive in his cell phone. And then, per policy, the Israeli army went to Ayyash’s home village, and blew up the house of his family. This is Israeli policy.

Really interesting and informative, and the footage — of Gaza in particular — goes a long way toward helping me visualize what are normally really abstract conceptual spaces.

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With God on Our Side: George W. Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right in America, Calvin Skaggs (2004)

Excellent, illuminating, but circumscribed documentary. It reveals comprehensively and with great insight the birth and rise of the religious right as a political force in American politics. The only thing that troubles me about it is that it never acknowledges the economic motives of this lobby; the film portrays the motives of the evangelicals as being purely spiritual, that is, we want to get evangelicals elected because we want America to be a Christian nation. This is bullshit, of course. Evangelicals want to get evangelicals elected because evangelicals are pro-business. Jesus is the cover story; capitalism is the story. That said, this is definitely worth watching if you want to get a better understanding of the dynamics of the rise of the religious right.

As an added bonus, you will be forced to contemplate the possibility that Jerry Falwell is smart. Not right, mind you, but smart. Cunning. Like a fox.

Actually, weirdly, I get the feeling from the footage here that the only true believer is George W. Bush himself. Everyone else, I think, understands full well that religion is a tool. He’s the dipshit who truly thinks that if you just put your faith in God, all will be well.

The other, very troubling feeling that I get is that the president’s recent reversals don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Evangelical Christianity will not be easily dislodged from Washington, no matter how dissatisfied Americans become with this or that particular politician.

Amsterdam, Ian McEwan (1998)

London kills me. It makes sense that Woody Allen’s been making his movies over there lately. Apparently the kind of rich, pseudo-cultural, pseudo-progressive upper west side drawing room comedy he loves still has some currency over there. Here, it seems not just absurdly anachronistic and irrelevant, but offensively so. There’s nothing at stake in this gleefully spiteful and preening little story, and furthermore no one to like, including the author. The grand moral issues the book pretends to engage are actually just manifestations of the stingy little emotional hangnails of its one-dimensional cleverish characters. I had to read a hundred pages of Tolstoy to get the taste of mildew and gin out of my mouth.

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Kandahar, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2001)

Watching this fascinating movie reminded me of Samuel Johnson’s piggish bon mot: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” I couldn’t call Kandahar a good movie: the plot is one-dimensional, the dialogue is stiff as a board, the camerawork is only a bit more sophisticated than a suburbanite’s camcorder recording of a kid’s birthday party. What makes the movie worth watching is the glimpse it gives of the blasted Afghan landscape and the unbelievably constrained and dangerous position in which women found themselves under the Taliban. It’s especially poignant to learn that the film’s story is actually based upon the real-life experience of its lovely star, Nelofer Pazira.

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The Green Berets, Ray Kellog & John Wayne (1968)

A massively ham-handed piece of right-wing, pro-war, paranoid propaganda, sure, but beyond that it’s just a really awkward, slow, dull war movie. John Wayne’s disgusting and absurd in this; overweight and old and we’re supposed to believe the girlies love him and he’s capable of marching through the jungle for days on end. I don’t think any other actor can elicit such a range of reactions from me. Is it possible that this pig is the same man who makes me tear up every time I watch Stagecoach?

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The Good Shepherd, Robert DeNiro (2006)

Long, hushed, intent history of the origins of the CIA. Matt Damon contracts a bad case of the imitative fallacy: the movie’s point is that real spy work is a dull grind demanding complete commitment and tremendous boredom; as a result, Damon spends all three hours of the movie walking around like Frankenstein, with no expression on his face and almost nothing to say. We get it, and it’s effective, but it is dull. The final plot twists constitute an attempt to get a LeCarre-type double-bind where Damon’s forced to choose between personal love and professional necessity. Unlike George Smiley, Damon doesn’t avail himself of the opportunity to suggest he has a soul; instead he proves he doesn’t have one. The movie’s failure, finally, is due to the fact that we never really understand what’s keeping Damon going. It’s not love of country, or love of family, or love of self. If anything, he just seems to love the paperwork.

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The Enemy Below, Dick Powell (1957)

One of the great WWII submarine movies. Robert Mitchum is the clever, hardboiled American destroyer captain who fights with brilliance but no pleasure. Curd Jurgens is the clever, hardboiled German u-boat captain who’s sick of war and contemptuous of the Nazis. The two hunt each other, outwit each other, finally destroy each other’s ships and save each other’s lives. A pretty perfect parable of Wirtschaftswunder-era Germany’s relationship with the United States.

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Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (2006)

Decent sci-fi set twenty years hence in a Britain totally overcome by anti-immigrant hysteria, and a world totally demoralized by the fact that no babies have been born in more than 18 years. Scruffy Clive Owen, who I am starting to like quite a lot but who needs to be more careful how he picks his projects, was once an activist against the fascistic government but gave up and sold out to become a bureaucratic drone. When his ex drafts him back into the movement to save the one pregnant girl on earth, his old idealism is awoken. Pretty straightforward, right? Not really.

Children of Men is very intense, and hugely clever in some of its art-direction-type details (e.g. advertisements for the suicide drug “Quietus” on the television), but I wasn’t too enamored of the incredible oversaturation of violence, and — is this just me? — the basic absurdity of the plot. The most fundamental confusion for me is the spurious linkage of the film’s two fundamental obsessions: the human race’s infertility, and nationalistic/racist anti-immigrant hysteria. I think the movie wants us to link these two phenomena somehow, but it’s never clear how. The illegals aren’t accused of causing the infertility. It’s not at all clear why the illegals are so desperate to get into England in the first place. We see footage of other capital cities burning, and are told by newscasters that “only England soliders on,” but it’s never explained how infertility has led to chaos elsehwere but not in England. A terrorist bomb goes off in scene one, but who set it off, and why? Not clear.

As a vision of a dystopic future of environmental collapse, racism, xenophobia, terrorism, and health catastrophe, the movie succeeds very well, but it seems curiously unable or unwilling to expose or explain the roots of those problems. As such, it feels like a bit of a wallow, more interested in greedily imagining terrible outcomes than understanding their sources.

Blindness, Jose Saramago (1995/1997)

A powerful and engrossing allegory in which the population of an entire city goes blind. But not all at once. The first wave is horribly oppressed by those yet to lose their sight, so that by the time everyone’s gone blind, both those who were the first to be afflicted and those who brought up the rear have all become accustomed to living like feral animals and treating others as such. In short, the novel’s moral is that the golden rule may be to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, but such an ethic is artificial and hopelessly fragile: under duress, everyone’s interest becomes purely self-serving. Or almost everyone’s. One character in the novel retains her sight — no one knows why — and through her guidance literal and moral, a small group of the blind manages to retain their dignity and decency.

Summarizing the book like that, I realize that its plot is really pretty tiresome. What kept me fascinated and involved, I think, is Saramago’s narration, which strikes a perfect tone. The narrator most often lets the characters and their actions speak for themselves, but occasionally lets fall a shrewd line of observation — not unsympathetic, but not without teeth, either — that establishes a terrific sense of moral authority.

Put this on the shelf alongside Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.